LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Fans of open-wheel racing have been clamoring for American drivers, and an American star who could back it up on track. Ryan Hunter-Reay may have answered the call.
The former Dana Point resident won the 36th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, the marquee event in the IZOD IndyCar Series that isn't the Indianapolis 500. He is guaranteed only another three races in the series, but he's going to make it difficult for team owner Michael Andretti to park him should funding run dry.
"Man, that was awesome," said Hunter-Reay, who led 64 of the 85 laps. "The car was so much fun to drive. Some of the most fun I've had in a race car because it was handling so well. This team has done such a great job."
Hunter-Reay's hopes for extending his season may have been helped by carrying the colors of title sponsor IZOD in his No. 37 Honda-powered Dallara that he drove to his fourth career victory. Two of those came in the Champ Car World Series. His victory in 2008 for Rahal-Letterman on the fabled Watkins Glen road course was his first series victory under the Indy Racing League banner.
Starting second, Hunter-Reay passed for the lead on Lap 18 when pole-sitter Will Power stuck in first gear exiting the famous Turn 11 hairpin. Justin Wilson, who finished second, also got past Power, who finished third.
"We had the fastest race lap and were pulling away when we needed to," said Hunter-Reay, who was the fastest driver in practice Friday and had the race's fastest lap with three to go. "We definitely deserved this win whether we got stuck in first gear for three seconds or not. This was our race."
Wilson finished second despite receiving damage to his front wing when the lapped car of Alex Lloyd shut the door on Wilson entering Turn 8 on Lap 53. Wilson emerged from the cycle of pit stops in third place. On Lap 67 he executed a nifty pass of Power -- who won the first two races of the season -- going into Turn 1 but had two lapped cars between himself and Hunter-Reay, who held a 3.9-second lead.
Scott Dixon, who started eighth, and Hunter-Reay teammate Tony Kanaan rounded out the top five. The remainder of the top 10 were Mario Moraes, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, Dan Wheldon and Mike Conway.
Long Beach is special to Hunter-Reay not only because of the venue's marquee value but also because he lived in Dana Point for the past six years and he very much considers it his home race even though he moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in January. It was here he had his first race as a Formula Atlantic and Champ Car driver, and where he met his fiancée, Beccy Gordon -- the sister of NASCAR driver Robby Gordon -- and where they became engaged a year ago Friday.
It was also a race that was popular with Hunter-Reay's mother, Lydia, who died in November from colon cancer.
"My mom was out there with me, she passed away recently, and this one was for her that's for sure," Hunter Reay said. "This is a race she loved coming to. Over the last couple of laps I said, 'This is for you, Mom.'"
Hunter-Reay's victory at Watkins Glen 27 races ago was also the last victory by an American driver, and the 29-year-old who has bounced from team to team -- most of them underfunded and in danger of folding -- gave Andretti his first victory as sole owner. He had previously co-owned Andretti Green Racing and had gone 28 races without a victory.
Through four of 17 races, Hunter-Reay currently stands third in the championship, 43 points behind Power and one point behind Castroneves. Wilson is fourth, 47 points behind Power.
Hunter-Reay's victory was popular with the fans, estimated to be about 65,000 on race day, and Andretti said it was a good step toward securing sponsorship beyond three more races, at Kansas, Indianapolis and Texas Motor Speedway.
"Obviously this race is definitely going to help in terms of what we need to do to get him over the goal line to get the support to fund the car the rest of the year," said Andretti, who won his first race and last race as an IndyCar driver at Long Beach.
Now that he is in comparable equipment to some of the series' leading drivers, Hunter-Reay may be establishing himself as the best American driver in the series. Although still taking a backseat to teammate and media darling Danica Patrick, who finished 16th, and without the name recognition of teammate Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal, Hunter-Reay is building the case that he is America's pre-eminent open-wheel driver.
"He's definitely up there," Michael Andretti said. "Marco is at the top of his game right now, having a good year in terms of performance. Graham's done a great job. Right now, Ryan is definitely firing on all cylinders."
"He's doing a really good job," Power said. "As a driver, you have to keep working away at it, keep learning and keep getting better. If you don't, you're going to get passed. That's how our sport is. He's right there."
No one passed him Sunday, and when the checkered flag fell, he was right there.